We talk to Philip Norman, co-founder of Ross Robotics, the company behind the modular Robosynthesis robotics system that’s revolutionising the agriculture, defence, science – and just about every other industry with its smart adaptability.

What is Robosynthesis?

Robosynthesis is a modular robotics platform that allows businesses to use the same robotic core for a variety of different applications in their industry. It has been developed by Ross Robotics.

Where did the idea for Robosynthesis come from?

I actually designed what I thought was a better form of construction toy for my children – a truly modular robot that’s totally reconfigurable using very few parts. I came extremely close to selling it into a major international toy company.

But it didn’t happen at the eleventh hour, so I looked for some other way of exploiting the technology. I’d already paid quite a lot of money for the design, construction and of course patents and that’s what sent me towards robotics. So in a weird, very messy way, I ended up making a modular robotic system.

At the time, I knew about Lego Mindstorms, I knew about robots building cars in factories but beyond that I had no knowledge of robots, really, except for science fiction. My background is in architecture, graphics and illustration, definitely not robotics!

I couldn’t see the difference between a robot that cleans Skyscraper windows or one that could be used for nuclear decommissioning. Why couldn’t you use common parts for both, rather than having to make them from scratch every time? Why couldn’t it be that be a standardised generic system could build lots of different robots?

How is Robosynthesis different to other modular robots?

Only by developing the system and going out to the market could I start to understand what actually we could offer. With any modular robot, the main offering is that they can be re-configured.

It turns out that, really what people are interested in is the ability to reduce costs. If you’re a big organisation and you need to run lots of different types of robots, it makes sense to have a common system that you can build the robots from, just by switching out a few parts.

Rather than having four different robots from four different manufacturers, bought through four different procurement channels, with four different maintenance repair regimes, you can have a common platform and make all robots from a single system.

That takes a lot of cost and complexity out of the equation. And actually, then incidentally, the other benefit is availability because you can keep the robots running 24/7 by substituting the modules.

The robots have the intelligence to do everything autonomously, will not need to be supervised, and will perform quite a number of functions. And we can vary those functions, depending on what the end user requires.

How is Robosynthesis being used?

We’re currently working on an InnovateUK-funded project with the Royal Veterinary College, Harper Adams University and Applied Poultry, a supplier of services into the poultry industry worldwide.

Farmers are trying to work out how to improve efficiency via the use of automated systems, and in the case of chicken farming, reduce the instances of disease. It turns out that a robot can be a very valuable addition, taking the stockman duties away from people. There aren’t any cross-contamination issues, robots can look after the environment by monitoring the air quality, temperature, and manage the conditions if needed.

They can aerate the floor under the chickens, which is usually done by human rakers, and identify ill, maimed or even dead birds and remove them. It’s healthier for the workers because they don’t have to go into the sheds and it keeps the chickens calmer. The stress of humans going into the sheds can cause chickens to stop growing for 24-48 hours, which means it takes longer for them to grow to full size.

We’re also working in nuclear decommissioning, with the robots venturing into spaces that are hard to access and aren’t suitable for humans. UAVs aren’t suitable because the amount of time they can stay in the air is limited due to battery life and their load is limited too.

Also, they can’t really do things, they can’t manipulate things in the way that a ground robot can and they are quite hard to control. Any market where the environment is quite aggressive is perfect for Robosynthesis.

What does the future hold for Robosynthesis?

We’re still pretty early in the commercial cycle and are only just now starting to commercialise our robots. We’re looking more at a licensing model and coming up with a service offering or a product offering with channel partners.

This is really about, to some extent, taking out the integration challenge which is often seen as major deal breaker in the market. There’s a huge number of mature technologies out there, whether being sensors, tools or AI, but the challenge is very often to find compelling packages to exploit them.

We want to de-frictionalise the market to bring together sensors, tools and AI in real-life scenarios. But what we need over and above that, is use cases, so we can start to multiply the applicability of the system in other markets, building confidence that this thing really delivers, and that’s where we are trying to go.